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Behind the Placards 

The odd and troubling origins of today’s anti-war movement

Wednesday, Oct 30 2002
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WWP shaped the demonstration’s content by loading the speakers‘ list with its own people. None, though, were identified as belonging to the WWP. Larry Holmes, who emceed much of the rally from a stage dominated by ANSWER posters, was introduced as a representative of the ANSWER Steering Committee and the International Action Center. The audience was not told that he is also a member of the secretariat of the Workers World Party. When Leslie Feinberg spoke and accused Bush of concocting a war to cover up ”the capitalist economic crisis,“ she informed the crowd that she is ”a Jewish revolutionary“ dedicated to the ”fight against Zionism.“ When I asked her what groups she worked with, she replied that she was a ”lesbian-gay-bi-transgender movement activist.“ Yet a May issue of Workers World describes Feinberg as a ”lesbian and transgendered communist and a managing editor of Workers World.“ The WWP’s Sara Flounders, who urged the crowd to resist ”colonial subjugation,“ was presented as an IAC rep. Shortly after she spoke, Holmes introduced one of the event‘s big-name speakers: Ramsey Clark. He declared that the Bush administration aims to ”end the idea of individual freedom.“

Most of the protesters, I assume, were oblivious to the WWP’s role in the event. They merely wanted to gather with other foes of the war and express their collective opposition. They waved signs (”We need an Axis of Sanity,“ ”Draft Perle,“ ”Collateral Damage = Civilian Deaths,“ ”Fuck Bush“). They cheered on rappers who sang, ”No blood for oil.“ They laughed when Medea Benjamin, the head of Global Exchange, said, ”We need to stop the testosterone-poisoning of our globe.“ They filled red ANSWER donation buckets with coins and bills. But how might they have reacted if Holmes and his comrades had asked them to stand with Saddam, Milosevic and Kim? Or to oppose further inspections in Iraq?

One man in the crowd was wise to the behind-the-scenes politics. When Brian Becker, a WWP member introduced (of course) as an ANSWER activist, hit the stage, Paul Donahue, a middle-aged fellow who works with the Thomas Merton Peace and Social Justice Center in Pittsburgh, shouted, ”Stalinist!“ Donahue and his colleagues at the Merton Center, upset that WWP activists were in charge of this demonstration, had debated whether to attend. ”Some of us tried to convince others to come,“ Donahue recalled. ”We figured we could dilute the [WWP] part of the message. But in the end most didn‘t come. People were saying, ’They‘re Maoists.’ But they‘re the only game in town, and I’ve got to admit they‘re good organizers. They remembered everything but the Porta-Johns.“ Rock singer Patti Smith, though, was not troubled by the organizers. ”My main concern now is the anti-war movement,“ she said before playing for the crowd. ”I’m for a nonpartisan, globalist movement. I don‘t care who it is as long as they feel the same.“

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The WWP does have the shock troops and talent needed to construct a quasi mass demonstration. But the bodies have to come from elsewhere. So WWPers create fronts and trim their message, and anti-war Americans, who presumably don’t share WWP sentiments, have an opportunity to assemble and register their stand against the war. At the same time, WWP activists, hiding their true colors, gain a forum where thousands of people listen to their exhortations. Is this a good deal -- or a dangerous one? Who‘s using whom?

”Organizing against the silence is important,“ Bob Borosage, executive director of Campaign for America’s Future, a leading progressive policy shop in Washington, said backstage at the rally: ”This [rally] is easy to dismiss as the radical fringe, but it holds the potential for a larger movement down the road.“ Borosage did add that the WWP ”puts a slant on the speakers and that limits the appeal to others. But history shows that protests are organized first by militant, radical fringe parties and then get taken over by more centrist voices as the movement grows. They provide a vessel for people who want to protest.“

That‘s the vessel-half-filled view. The other argument is that WWP’s involvement will prevent the anti-war movement from growing. Sure, the commies can rent buses and obtain parade permits, but if they have a say in the message, as they have had, the anti-war movement is going to have a tough time signing up non-lefties. When the organizers tried and failed to play a recorded message from Al-Amin, Lorena Stackpole, a 20-year-old New York University student, said, ”This is not what I came for.“ And an organizer for a non-revolutionary peace group that participated in the event remarked, ”The rhetoric here is not useful if we want to expand.“ After all, how does urging the release of Cubans accused of committing espionage in the United States -- a pet project of the WWP -- help draw more people into the anti-war movement? (In a similar reds-take-control situation, the ”Not in My Name“ campaign -- which pushes an anti-war statement signed by scores of prominent and celebrity lefties, including Jane Fonda, Martin Luther King III, Marisa Tomei, Kurt Vonnegut and Oliver Stone -- has been directed, in part, by C. Clark Kissinger, a longtime Maoist activist and member of the Revolutionary Communist Party.)

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